Saturday, 15 October 2011

Missing Tiger

Cambodian breakfast in the red light zone
If first impressions count, our hotel in Phnom Penh got off to a bad start as the promised pick-up didn’t materialise at the bus depot when we arrived. Having found the hotel online, I had made the cunning move of not physically writing down the name and address, preferring to trust in the promise of a waiting tuk-tuk. With no easy access to the web at hand, we jumped in a taxi and headed off in search of my vaguest recollection of the street name.

It turned out to be three whole blocks away, which made the explanation from the reception staff that their driver had gone to the wrong bus stop to collect us even less likely. But it seemed like a clean, quiet place, so we unpacked and headed out to explore. We were only a block and a half from the swollen Mekong, but in that space it became painfully obvious – even to our innocent eyes – that we were slap bang in the middle of a red-light zone. At four in the afternoon groups of thinly dressed young Cambodian women lounged at the entrances to various bars, chatting and laughing, watching the traffic pass on the street, watching and waiting. Waiting for what? There seemed like only one answer to that question, but we both fought shy of jumping to hasty conclusions just hours after arriving in the city. On our way back to the hotel, though, the question was rudely answered as we spied two rotund, white, middle-aged western men sitting at one of the bars, holding court. Once again the race gap, the age gap and the wealth gap in these scenes that we glimpsed left a sour taste in the mouth.

Child scoots while mother joins public dance class
The Mekong in Phnom Penh has a big promenade, so scooter boy got to terrorise the strolling population with his slalom skills – or lack thereof. As night fell the little coloured LEDs that sparkle inside the rubber wheels when they spin round became more of a child-locating safety device as our son sped off into the gloom of the partly lit pavement. Inevitably he learnt to stymy even these pathetic attempts at parental responsibility – after a particularly long scoot, once well out of our view, he’d take a breather and plonk himself down on a bench. At which point we’d lose sight of the no-longer flashing LEDs, and find ourselves starting to run after the last known sighting of our vanishing boy. Nothing worse than the occasional scratched knee came of these adventures, thankfully, for there don’t seem to be pervert child-snatchers lurking round every corner here – maybe that’s because they don’t read the British gutter press in Cambodia?

Back at the hotel disaster struck as we prepared for bed. Silver, the tiger, our faithful travel companion and obligatory stuffed-toy-that-child-sleeps-with, was missing. Oisin was remarkably unfazed by this, but as Silver had been our tiger long before Oisin came along to usurp him, Pati and I were distraught. Once the child was asleep I grabbed the laptop to begin the task of trying to locate him. Heart beating, I logged on to my email, wondering if I was going to have to make a return trip to Siem Reap to recover the straggler. But before I even got to write a word, a message appeared: Rosy Guesthouse had already been in touch to say that he’d been found nestling under the sheets when our room was being cleaned that morning. They wanted to know where we’d like him forwarded on to. Pulses now slowing, we settled down for the night, the chastened silence mute testimony to our soaring guilt and sense of unwarranted good fortune – if we’d left him behind anywhere else on the journey so far, he would never have been able to rejoin us.

Prisoners were chained to the floor in cells in Tuol Sleng
Phnom Penh means political history to me. John Pilger’s Heroes was one of the first books to shape my political conscience, and so we visited Tuol Sleng prison and then Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (the Killings Fields that inspired the book and film of the same name). These are harrowing places, and in the “torture centre” prison the walls are hung with those familiar haunting photographs showing the faces of Pol Pot’s victims staring out at us across time. Yet the ease with which a place such as this sits on a Western package tour itinerary makes me uneasy at how comfortable it is to focus exclusively on the victims of “our” bad guys. Is it conceivable that one day the people of Afghanistan will be allowed to erect a monument to the innumerable farmers and their families who’ve been killed by American drone attacks?

There are signs everywhere warning against laughing. This I find incomprehensible – what sort of people visit these places that make it necessary to prohibit laughing at a memorial to the victims of one of the Twentieth Century’s more grotesque episodes of human rights abuse? As if in response, at the Killing Fields Oisin exploded into the most piercing scream I’ve heard from him. He’d already spotted the rows of white skulls in the Stupa, the shrine filled with the unearthed remains of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, after I’d failed to recognise it for what it was and keep him a safe, child-friendly distance from it. “Daddy, what are those heads for?” came the unanswerable question. But then he just started screaming, panicked, uncharacteristically full volume, and we rushed to stifle his disrespect. As we couldn’t shush him, we had to find out what was wrong. An ant, substantially larger than anything we’d previously had to deal with, had hopped onto his sandal and buried its pincers into his big toe. Sniffling but now ant-less, Pati led him off out of the way while I went to pay my respects anew. I walked over earth paths with flaps of checked Khmer material poking up through them. During monsoon season the rain softens the ground and brings to the surface the tattered remains of the clothes of those buried there. Even the earth, it would seem, has no stomach for the crimes of the past and brings up the casually buried evidence as if demanding justice in its own quiet way.

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