Don’t Forget to Pack a Wife!
By Claire Brownell
In the spring of 1980, the Dead Kennedys released “Holiday in Cambodia,” on Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. It was a year after Vietnamese occupation toppled Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the massacre of one to two million people. A commentary on the hypocrisy of young, university educated liberals who claim an appropriated understanding of poor minorities, the song suggests such people take a holiday in Cambodia and see if they still think life in the ghetto is poetic and cool.
“And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums’ got so much soul.”
So I’m sitting here in a ritzy tourist cafe in Siem Reap, listening to Frank Sinatra and drinking a banana shake, with a krama (traditional Cambodian scarf) tied around my neck, and reflecting on the beautiful irony of that song in 2008. I’m sure that in 1980, it would have been totally inconceivable to the Dead Kennedys that Cambodia would become a place where the type of people they deride in the song would actually voluntarily take a holiday. But it has. And they do. And I guess (gulp) I’m one of them. And it’s very possible that Jello Biafra would call me up from his office at the Green Party to tell me I’m a spineless liberal for what I’m about to write, and it’s very possible he would be right. Cambodia’s got problems. Big problems. Problems so big that my middle class white Canadian brain can’t even begin to wrap itself around them, even though I’ve been here for a month and a half. But goddammit, the slums here do have soul. There. I said it.
My friend Maggie has come up with a representation of Cambodia as experienced by a backpacker in pie chart form.
Cambodia: Composite Parts
- 78% building shit (I hear most people call it “development”)
- 15% livestock
- 20% dust everywhere, especially my lungs
- 32% consistently fantastic food
- 17% sassy rude kids selling stuff, followed by realizing that they’ve outsmarted you by 55% by making you buy something you don’t want and have also just stolen 18% of your wallet
- 67% garbage on fire
- 19% being amazed that amazingly beautiful, mindblowing things has become normal
- 12% heartbreak (amputees, prostitution, genocide museums, etc.)
- 9% blackouts caused by someone tripping over the one extension cord that powers all of Cambodia
- 14% being a celebrity to children under the age of six
- 77% almost getting hit by a Lexus, a rickshaw, and a cart selling seashells at the same time
- 97% paying less than a dollar for almost everything, including large bottles of whiskey
- 99% lounging
- 87% forgetting everything I ever learned in school, including how pie charts work
Now that you have a general idea of how things work here, I’m sure it’s easy to infer that the excess in Cambodia is just as shocking as the poverty. It would be fully possible to travel the high roller way, see only the major sites in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and not even realize that Cambodia is a poor country. I like to think that traveling dirty backpacker style and my (shortlived) career working at a bar run by a Khmer family have given me a bit more insight into the other side of Cambodian life (Sidenote: Khmer is the term for the Cambodian language and ethnicity, “Cambodian” refers to the nationality). For one thing, Khmer people are tough. Cambodians would be in hysterics over the Canadian definition of a hard life (and, in fact, laughing at Westerners seems to be a national pastime). Many work two full time jobs and also go to school nights and weekends. Kids learn to drive motorcycles and work as tour guides or sassy salespeople before Canadian kids lose their training wheels. Toronto teenaged thugs who think they’re gangsters should try talking to a Cambodian street kid for twenty minutes, and they’d realize their $300 Akademics jeans plus the half quarter of weed in their pocket would support the average Cambodian for almost a year. For another thing, the country and people have been through so much that I’m going to attempt to summarize the collective Khmer attitude I’ve observed in the following way: So much shit has happened, so much shit is still happening, so much shit will, by all laws of probability, continue to happen, that we might as well chill out on our hammocks and make the best of it while we can. Land mines, sex tourism, relatives killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide, children unable to afford school: these things exist, and we’re pretty fucking mad about it, but right now, let’s get drunk and go to a wedding.
These contrasts are most visible in Phnom Penh, the capital city. Ten times scarier than Gotham, a billion times more interesting than Toronto, and often strangely reminiscent of Montreal with its flats with winding staircases, Phnom Penh is definitely the coolest major city I’ve been to so far. It’s also only recently become a place you can travel without worrying about some political party tossing a hand grenade into a crowd or exchanging gunfire in pickup trucks. Tourists can go to the former Khmer Rouge prison, S-21, which had 20 000 inmates and 7 survivors, in the morning. Then they could rub shoulders with dresssed up rich Khmers at the mall, head to the slums for some one dollar fried rice, barter over whether two t-shirts are worth $3 or $2.50 at the Russian market, and see an entire pagoda plated in silver at the Royal Palace. They could dodge the traffic composed almost entirely of rattletrap motorbikes competing for space with Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs and Lexuses (Lexi? What the hell is the plural of Lexus?) to catch a spectacular sunset over the nuclear green Boeng Kak lake, then get some $5 cocktails at a riverside cafe with all the money they saved on t-shirts. None of it makes any sense, and none of it holds any justice. But in the words of one Khmer who ran a travel agency by my guesthouse, “Don’t worry, man. Just go get stoned, why not?”
You can see how a wide range of types of tourists would be attracted to Cambodia. There are the middle aged package tourist types who mostly want to check Angkor Wat off their list. At the other end of the spectrum are the scum of the earth sex tourists who are there for the unabashed and widespread prostitution. Then there’s everyone in between. Want to get baked all day by a stunning river? Head to Kampot. Backpacker who’s squandered your carefully planned budget at the bar? There’s a job for you bartending in Sihanoukville, or teaching English in Phnom Penh if you’re willing to stick around for a couple of months. Don’t mind a drunken bender in between seeing the most stunning sights on earth? Siem Reap has an entire street called “Bar Street.” Everyone wants to take a holiday in Cambodia. And very soon, even more people will, but they won’t be the young, ten-dollar-a-day budget travelers. There’s a joint Cambodia-Thailand visa in the works. A national park in Kampot is being bulldozed to make way for a giant casino and theme park. The entire beachfront bar strip of the backpacker ghetto Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville is being torn down to make way for resorts in the next month and a half. So get there soon, because Cambodia might not have much soul for long.