Southeast Asia, Day 10: Getting annoyed by the casual attitude of casualties in the Cambodian War

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

I slept in today, as I was unmotivated to push myself to do anything. Cambodia wasn’t a country that I had a lot written down for, so I didn’t feel obligated to go anywhere and do anything in particular.

I woke up to the maids coming in to make the beds. They were confused as I’d slept in the wrong bed, and I was trying to gesture and indicate that my bed was the top bunk but someone was there last night. After repeating some gestures and simplifying the wording as much as possible, I think they finally understood.

I changed into my swimsuit and grabbed my tablet to sit beside the pool and veg out. Around 11:30am, I ran into Scarlett, who had moved rooms this morning and still hadn’t eaten. We decided to go next door, to the same place I got my chicken pumpkin stir fry, and get some brunch.

I wasn’t super hungry, but knew I had to eat, so I got spring rolls and a smoothie for $4 while Scarlett ordered her fried rice and hilariously recounted the previous night.

She told me how hot it was in the night, which triggered me to remember that indeed, it was hot, despite the AC being on full blast. I now remember that she kept waking up and saying how hot it was, moaning in pain and discomfort at the situation. After all, heat rises and she was on the top bunk.

She told me she awoke when the two other girls returned to the room at nearly 4am, and decided to shower. “They didn’t even try to be quiet! They were just laughing about how they had to get up at 7am, and while one was showering, the other was in the room and they were just shouting through the door to each other!” Scarlett’s utter confusion at the absurdity was just as amusing as the story itself. Then, Scarlett told me, she wanted to ask the girls where she could get a water refill, but she was too embarrassed for having been moaning and talking in her sleep about how hot it was, so she just slipped off to the hostel lobby in her pajamas to get water. Scarlett said she thought the front desk guy must have thought she was so absurd for showing up at 5am asking for water. She got a cold liter bottle of water, and she returned to the room. Instead of drinking it, she decided it was a better decision to just curl up in a ball and hug it to her chest to keep her cool. “I must have just looked completely mad!”

Then, she told me, at 7am, the girls got up, packed their things, and left. She repeated how weird it was that they came in at 4am, repeatedly talking about how they were going to be leaving at 7am, and how they were late. “Actually, now that I think about it…I don’t even know if they were speaking English! Didn’t you say they were Filipino? God, I could have just imagined them saying they were running late but really I have no idea if that conversation ever even happened!”

She and I talked about how we were much drunker than we thought we would be, especially after so few drinks. The shots they served at the bar were mixed, and therefore barely contained a full shot of alcohol. We decided our dehydration and lack of food led to the alcohol hitting us much stronger than usual.

After lunch, I sat by the pool, unmotivated to do much else. It wasn’t even a hangover, as I was feeling physically well. I was just tired, and after two nights of not getting some solid sleep, I was just exhausted. I learned from the woman at the hostel’s front desk that a ticket to Angkor Wat was nearly $40, on top of the cost of the tuktuk to go there and wait for me, on top of the cost of a guide. I know guides are unnecessary, but when it comes to sites or history of which I am unfamiliar, I prefer a guide to tell me about what I’m looking at. I decided that Angkor Wat just wasn’t in the cards for me on this trip. It will always be here, but it was far too expensive and too much of a time commitment for my visit.

Land mines, land mines, and more land mines

I went online to find something to do nearby, and as it neared 3pm, I sorted out a tuktuk to take me to the War Museum. I enjoy riding in the tuktuks, and I liked the idea of being able to space out during the journey, despite it only being about twenty minutes.

The war museum is only $5 and comes with a free tour guide (I tipped him $2), which was far cheaper than Angkor Wat and just the low-commitment cultural thing I wanted to do. Two hours was plenty of time for the informative tour and personal time to explore the English placards on all the walls. The tour guide accompanied me and one other person, a middle-aged British man who knew all about war. As my history classes have always briefly skimmed over the Vietnam War and Asian history was almost never covered in my schooling, I was completely uninformed. The British dude apparently knows everything about machines made for killing, so he was pretty casual about seeing all the guns and tanks and bomber planes. I kept quiet for the most part, as I got the impression that any questions would perpetuate the closed-minded/uninformed American stereotype.

I was in such a weird mood today, so any casual chuckles about how children were brainwashed by the Khmer Rouge and taught to use guns to murder their fellow man were pissing me off. And yes, the guide and British dude had quite a few casual chuckles about it. And about how pineapple land mines were not the most innocent fruit, and about holding an AK in your own hands that was once used to murder innocent people, and about a bunch of other things. Normally, I would still be unamused, but I wasn’t just unamused today, I was plain angry.

The guide showed us pictures of people affected by landmines. Not all the pictures were of wartime, but some were as recent as the last few years, since many landmines are still uncovered, and many Cambodians who live in the countryside live on land riddled with them. The guide told us how, unfortunately, the government provides no aid or pension to those who get injured or permanently disabled by land mines.

I enjoyed having the guide there to lead us through the outdoor museum, adding supplementary material to the weapons and machinery that was spread about. I wasn’t enjoying how the British dude was asking about tanks and their specs like he was checking out a new Mustang. Once the guide walked us around the perimeter for about 45 minutes, we had a chance to explore on our own.

Why AK-47s are so popular.

There are plenty of English placards and information about everything, so a guide is not even necessary, should one not be available during your visit. Now, I was able to read up on the history of the revolution and get a complete rundown of what happened between 1970 and 1999. I was able to read up on the actual atrocities of the prison camps.

Some of the most interesting parts of the museum were the information about how a popular cartoonist created a comic for young American soldiers in Vietnam about how to clean, store, and shoot your gun, full of quips, puns, and double entendre. The comic they displayed in the museum was a babe with a machine gun with the title, “How to strip your baby,” informing soldiers how to take apart their gun. Disturbing.

Another interesting tidbit was that during the 1970s, if boats came too close to the Cambodian shore, they were captured and the crew imprisoned. Four Americans were some of the westerners captured in these encounters. They were questioned and presumed to be spies, when two were just smuggling some pot and others were just randomly sailing around. Of course, that isn’t sufficient enough for a prison camp, so they were tortured for confessions and names of operatives. They all named pop culture references to note to future westerners that their capture was for nothing, but of course, Cambodian officials didn’t understand the references of the operatives Mr. Magoo, Colonel Sanders and Sergeant Pepper and took them as legitimate confessions.

After getting my fill of the museum, I went back outside to the tuktuk driver who was waiting for me, watching a movie on his phone with a couple other drivers. He asked where we were headed next. I said the hostel, then paused, then asked where a good place to watch the sunset would be. The gist of his response was the best places were too far and they all required me to get a ticket to a temple. Are there really no good places to watch the sunset outside of a temple?

So we headed back to the hostel, until I stopped him to ask if he could take me to a souvenir place. I was impressed by his choice… lots of drivers will try to take you to a place their friend owns or somewhere where they can get kickbacks. He instead drove me down a ways away (I enjoyed the early evening ride) to a series of shops where the handicrafts are either made by or benefit disabled and underprivileged Cambodian people. He told me he liked taking people here, because lots of the tourist shops have cheap items from India or China, but these things were made locally or supported locals. I was all about it, but I was also just looking for a place to get some postcards and a patch, as I don’t buy big souvenirs. Also, after siphoning off money to pay my driver, I only had $25.

But I gave a good effort, looking at the outdoor displays of beautiful artwork and carvings and small backpacks, as well as observing the locals who were making it all. A woman followed beside me the entire time, as I have learned is typical in southeast Asia, but was frustrating as a shopper who just wanted to explore a little bit. It was an interesting cultural difference, where I am sure they do so to ensure the best customer service, to be there if you have any questions at all. As a westerner, I view it as annoying, because sometimes I just want to look around, and having someone beside me making suggestions every five seconds is not what I need.

We went into a larger building that had a lot more variety and lack of pricing, which was also frustrating, because I am sick of haggling. It is too much work for me. Also, I know that no price people are telling me is a hundred percent honest, which just turns me off during the whole experience. I looked at all the nice things, like purses and dresses and silk scarves and ties, all the wooden carvings and chopsticks and bath soaps. Finally I just asked for the postcards. I felt guilty and bought some lemongrass tea that I didn’t really want but at least I knew I would use. I spent only seven dollars and I felt bad, which is just exhausting. I don’t want to feel bad after shopping but so far on this trip, I have felt guilty after pretty much every shopping experience and it sucks.

I left, and because I’d waved away the plastic bag and instead put the items in my purse, the driver wasn’t sure if I’d bought anything. He asked if I found anything I liked, and I told him of my purchases, making me feel guilty yet again for him taking me out of his way to this area and spending almost no money. Look, I am a volunteer who makes no money, and I am backpacking. I am not going to buy silk dresses and brocaded quilts and wooden furniture.

I had him take me back to the hostel. It was early evening and I wasn’t too hungry, but I went exploring anyway.

Pub street

Cambodia in general was just a bust. I wasn’t really in the excited, travel-loving mood that I usually am, and some weird encounters with locals really turned me off to the whole experience. I went back to the hostel, hoping I could hang out with Scarlett, as I was no longer in the mood to meet new people. She wasn’t around, as her tour group went out for dinner and drinks.

I went up to the hostel bar, which was hopping, but not as much as last night. Even though Jasmine made me feel included by inviting me to play “beer cricket,” I didn’t like beer or the idea of having to pretend to be cheery and energetic for a team game. I stuck around for an hour and had a $3 margarita, but no one talked to me and I wasn’t even sure if I would have wanted them to.

I grabbed my things as it neared 11:30 and decided to go to bed. As I was leaving, another guest who I’d seen at the checkin desk earlier asked if I wanted to go to Angkor Wat tomorrow. I told him I was leaving tomorrow, but appreciated the invite.

I went to bed, where two new roommates were already sleeping, and enjoyed my last night of sleep in Cambodia before heading to Malaysia.