Cambodia Shares Its Secrets

3_Photo_SF_ChronicleIn Joseph Conrad’s short story, “The Secret Sharer,” a tall ship eases her way through the warm night, towards the coast of an exotic tropical kingdom. The captain secretly assists a mysterious man over the side and he swims to the lee-ward shore of “The Cambogee.” Nowadays we call that land Cambodia.

Many years ago, as a sailor plying the “China Coast,” I often slipped past that spot where Conrad’s hero bade farewell to his secret, other self. Every time I saw that blue-green, palm-lined shore, the Cambogee, a land of lost temples, colorful ceremonies and beautiful women beckoned. Many a time I had planned to drop anchor there and attend the magnificent feast of the Water Festival. Old shipmates reported that at Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville they had acquired some of their fondest memories, and tasted a unique style of spicy cookery that might well have been the best in the East.

But the map of life would lead me elsewhere, and in that time the long night of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fell upon the land I would always call The Cambogee. In the years that followed I read what little news trickled out of the country. I listened to second-hand tales of refugees, and sorrowed for them. I still passed the Secret Sharer’s landing, gazing longingly at the now forbidden shore. I greatly missed the country I had never visited, as though I had known her well, as though I, too, had shared her secrets.

Cambodia’s nightmare is now largely over, and the veil has lifted. There is regular air service to the country, although most roads, other than the one leading to Vietnam, are usually closed, and there is now a U.S. diplomatic presence. And despite the passage of the years, the Cambogee’s tropic siren song still reaches my heart. I recently obeyed its call.

A friend and a photographer in tow, we hopped a plane to Thailand. At Bangkok’s airport a Russian-built charter plane from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh was on the tarmac, revving up its engines for its return flight. Fast action and a credit card got us on board. In less than an hour, we landed at Phnom Penh’s Pochentong airport. A twenty dollar visa fee, three photographs and ten minutes in line, then out the door. I was in The Cambogee, at last!

The first Khmer, or Cambodian, king was Kambu, and the kingdom he established, in the ninth century, was known as Kambujadesa: The Sons of Kambu, or Kambuja for short. The land of the lower Mekong river valley became a confluence and focus of immigration, trade, religion and culture. From the Sri Vijaya empire of Indonesia came Hindu conquerors, missionaries, and scholars. Though the country has been Bhuddist now for over four hundred years, the modern Khmer system of writing is still based on Sanscrit. From the East, by way of Annam, came the Chinese; from the North came the Thai and the Lao; from the West, the Malay; and finally, from afar, the Europeans. Each brought their influence in literature, science, the arts, and in the kitchen.

Curry from the Hindu, noodles from the Chinese, basil and other aromatic leaves from the Thai. And from the Europeans? Bread, of course, attributed to the French, as well as wine and beer. But the most common, most important and pleasing contribution of the Europeans to Khmer cookery is the chile pepper.

We don’t know precisely when or by whom the chile was introduced to this part of the world, but it is logical that the credit belongs to the Spanish or Portuguese in the late sixteenth century. The first documented official contact between The Cambogee and the West took place in 1596. The king of Angkor, Barom Reachea, feared an attack by his neighbors. He sent an embassy, which included a Portuguese adventurer, to the Spanish governor general at Manila to request the assistance of his musket-armed soldiers. Seeing an opportunity to extend Spanish influence, the governor sent two small expeditions. They presented themselves to the king in 1596 and 1598. We don’t know what the expeditions’ supplies, provisions and gifts for the king included; but one hundred years after Columbus, the Spaniards were well supplied with Capsicums from the New World. It is delicious to speculate that though the military missions came to naught, a culinary mission enjoyed great success.

Ankor must have made the Spaniards swoon for amazement. Approaching from down wind you can hear it before you see it. The wind moans and sings and whispers in the ancient towers, calling, calling.  Maybe Conrad’s man was hearing it. Maybe I was for all those years. As the monument comes into view its stunning massiveness can overwhelm the visitor; and coming close, so can the echoes of its former beauty. And closer still, so can the echoes of its former ugliness. The pockmark scars of bullets mar so many walls and freizes. The well marked paths tell of the land mines that still lay nearby. Most telling of all are the men, women and children who walk on one leg, or don’t walk at all; who hold out a remaining hand for alms, or stare with darkened eyes.

Built over a span of centuries beginning in the ninth, what we refer to as “Angkor Wat” is actually a city and temple complex, one of its principal temples, or “wats” being Angkor, located about a mile and half outside the walled city of Angkor Thom. Inside the city is The Bayon, a temple every bit the equal of Angkor Wat.  The former faces East, the latter West. Then best viewing and photographing are at sunrise and sunset, respectively.

The Bayon is covered with the famous freizes that depict the history and culture and even daily life of the ancient Khmers: battle scenes full of soldiers and elephants; women grooming themselves or each other; merchants, fishwives and cockfights; royal processions.

Angkor Wat tells the story of the Ramayana in a bas relief that wraps around the temple for over 2000 feet. The Ramayana is the Hindu classic that vivdly depicts the battle between good and evil. The scars of 20th century battles continue to tell the tale.

Pol Pot’s legacy doesn’t end at Angkor. In any village of size, and especially near the capital, walk in an empty field and you may see buttons or bits of cloth eroding up from the ground. Outside Phom Penh, at the place we have all come to associate with “The Killing Fields,” it’s hard not to step on human teeth. Because the Khmer Rouge favored iron bars and other blunt instruments as their murder weapon, it saving them bullets, any crowbar, reinforcing bar or sledge hammer you see may have been turned to Pol Pot’s work. Images of death are so common in this land that I was daily astounded at how vibrantly alive it is.

Today the capital is a once gracious and beautiful city, continuing to emerge from under the rubble. Broad, tree-lined streets, designed by French colonial planners, ring with the sounds of construction and recovery. Monks, once banned and marked for death, color the city saffron. On city streets we were often followed for blocks by giggling children, the product of Asia’s highest birthrate, who wanted nothing but to tag along. Also among the most common signs of life and recovery are the innumerable restaurants, cafes, food stalls and snack sellers on every sidewalk, street corner, and dusty country crossroad, and the joy the people take in feasting. Having dealt so much with death, they find that the best ways to reaffirm life are making babies and eating.

I can’t advise you on the best places for making babies, but one of Phnom Penh’s most memorable eating establishments can be reached by following the main boulevard, Monivong, as it leads north out of town. Near the outskirts it narrows to a rutted asphalt track not quite two lanes wide. From here it turns straight for a mile and a half, bordered on both sides by closely spaced houses big and small. It curves westward past a great heap of field guns, old tanks and armored vehicles and other warstuffs being reduced to plowshares by busy men with cutting torches. Snaking through a clump of leafy trees, it arrives at a meadow where it intersects with half a doz en other roads and pathways. In the daytime this confluence is deserted, but by sunset it is a bustling carnival of portable restaurants.

Little bakeries on wheels, butchers on trucks, produce sellers bearing baskets on yokes, and whole kitchens set up on wooden tables clog the gathering of roads. Glowing paper lanterns hang from posted wires that zig-zag and criss-cross throughout the field. Families, packs of young men, gaggles of girls, day laborers, soldiers, beggars and farmers come here to dine in community.

On several nights we travelers took the walk north to the festive “eating meadow.” From each of several sellers we ordered food, then sat down on wooden divans covered with grass mats. As each dish was readied, cook’s assistants brought them to us, weaving their way through the visiting crowd. They brought us tangy salads of julienned green mango, tossed with shallots, ground peanuts, chile paste, and lime juice. The seafood kitchen sent steaming dishes of giant prawns in the shell. The girls who delivered them stood by and patiently peeled each one, taking the opportunity to joke and chat with the exotic “Farangs.” Beef, marinated in chile, galangal, and garlic teased our appetites as it sizzled on skewers over hot coals. Little sheaves of asparagus bound up with collars of fish paste, deep fried and drizzled with a piquant sauce, made us ooh and ahh at their cleverness. Runners kept us well supplied with beer.

If peasant fare in the out-of-doors is not on your menu du jour, you can get Western pub grub at the Rock Hard Cafe near the railway station. Good French food is had at the Cafe No Problem at 55, 178th Street. They also have a tennis court. Most of the hotels in town have adequate restaurants, but I urge you to walk the streets and follow your nose.

Getting around is easy in Phom Penh. Pedicabs, known as “samlors” are everywhere and they can take you to most places for a dollar, less if you dicker with the driver. Motorscooter taxis are common, too. Just hop on the back for about the same fare as a samlor. Or you might rent a scooter for about $10 per day and do your own driving. You can buy gas from ladies at roadside stands selling it from extra large Fanta bottles.

Much of the new construction in the city is of hotels. The most expensive place in town is on the river bank: The Hotel Cambodiana (313 Sisowath Quay, Tel: 26392), is a sanitized, rarified, self-contained capsule of the First World. It’s as though you enter it through a space-time warp and leave the city behind. It’s a real deal by Western standards, though. Room rates begin at $175; suites begin at $250.

In the mid range the old but newly resored Monorom Hotel is centrally located (89 Monivong Blvd Tel: 24799), well run, clean and comfortable. Check out the rooftop bar. The Monorom does have a dark history. The Khmer Rouge brought all captured army officers here to write out and sign their “confessions” before disposing of them. The act of restoring this place to life makes for a nicely extended middle digit to Pol Pot. Expect to pay at least $40 per night.

At the low end, the absolutely best place to stay is the Capitol (14, 182 Street, no phone). It’s competently run, relatively clean, safe enough and right in the middle of town. Tariff about $10 per person, double occupancy. The manager is a Cambodian Figaro, the factotum of the town. He knows everything that’s going on, where to find anything and how to get it.
Rely on him for current travel advisories. The Khmer Rouge are still active in the area along the border with Thailand and Laos, but as a rule, stay off their turf and you will likely never even see one. When they are misbehaving, one of their favorite targets is the train. I would not ride it. It’s clad in armor and bristling with machine guns and pushes a mine detonator car ahead of it (on which you can ride at no charge), but I didn’t come here for trouble. Otherwise, the greatest threat to life and limb in Cambodia is land mines. If you go walking in the countryside, stay on the pathways. And do be careful of AIDS. Any “sex worker” can be assumed to have it.

A good day trip out of the city is to Udong, the interim capital between Angkor and Phom Penh. Hire a motorbike or a car and driver and take route 5 north. It takes about an hour and the drive is very scenic. Most of the temples of Udong are ruins, but some have been rebuilt or restored. Also rebuilt and worth a look is the town Mosque. Few people seem to know it, but Cambodia has long had a muslim minority population.

Organised cultural attractions, such as classical dance recitals,  are regrettably few in Cambodia. Most of the country’s artists and other creative people were killed or exiled, and there simply hasn’t been enough time to fully recover. The government has sponsored some efforts in that direction, but money is short and the government is preoccupied with what has been described as a “tense but stable political situation.”

For entertainment there are a few cinemas, many nightclubs, and it is easy and rewarding to insinuate yourself into one of the numerous wedding parties that spill from hotels and restaurants out onto the streets. And it is there on those streets, walkways and lanes that the culture of the descendents of Kambu can best be seen. In its feasting and drinking, marrying and singing, lively, loving determination, the continous promenade of a once elegant cafe society still seeks to find its way back home. It is wonderful to watch.

GETTING TO ANGKOR: You can reach Angkor easily by air. Royal Air Camboge flies to nearby Siem Riep 5 or 6 times per day from Pochentong airport. Flight duration is about 45 minutes, cost is $70, one way. Rather steep, but it’s the only game in town, air-wise. Unless you’re in a hurry (and you shouldn’t come here in a hurry), you can take a regularly scheduled speedboat up river right to the ruins. Cost is about $25, duration, about 5 or 6 hours, depending on the condition of the boat and its pilot. Almost any hotel manager can make your arrangements. At Angkor you pay $30 for a three day pass to the ruins; and if you arrive by boat they will often tack on that evening’s sunset at no extra charge. Local accomodation runs from dirt cheap to moderately expensive.

Tourist information can change rather quickly in Cambodia. The only way to get the really hot skinny is to call up your friends and relatives at their time-share condo in Phnom Penh or at some future Angkor Club Med (shudder). The next best way to know before you go is to call up Top Guides of Berkeley, CA (510/527-9884) and ask. They run regular tours to Cambodia and will have the most recent reliable information.

IF YOU GOGetting there: There are flights to Phnom Penh daily from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Vientiane. All are about an hour and all cost about $100. Tourist visas are available upon arrival. You can get there by car or bus from Ho Chi Minh in six to eight hours. Cost is only a few dollars, but you will have to have your visa ahead of time.
Further reading: The Lonely Planet guide book is one of the best sources of historical, background and travel information and it fits neatly in your pocket. The Maverick Guide is also good, but as it also covers Vietnam and Laos it’s a bit bulky.

Health: Practice common sense. Don’t drink the water; disinfect any cuts; take your malaria prophylaxsis; don’t let yourself dehydrate or become overheated. The quality of medical care is “basic.”

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