Tuesday, December 13, 2005


This Saturday morning I’ll meet my friend Tyler at the train station in Takikawa, ride ninety minutes south to New Chitose Airport and catch a plane to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

Three days later, we’ll leave Taipei and take another plane three hours farther south to Phonm Phen, Cambodia.

Three weeks after that, on January 10th, we’ll come back to Hokkaido, our sun tans out of place against mounds of mid-winter snow.

That is as far as I’ve planned.

"Tyler and I hanging out with Santa in Sapporo last week."

Tyler has left the preparations for this trip in my hands. He’s a first year JET, from Oregon, still wet behind the ears, as our friend Aldo likes to say. When I asked if he wanted to go to Southeast Asia this winter, he said “Sure.” When I asked him if Cambodia sounded like a good destination, he said, “Cool.” When I booked the tickets, he said, “Thanks.” He’s bringing a harmonica and a homemade deck of Tarot cards.

Last week Tyler asked me where we would sleep in Cambodia. “I’m fine with crashing in parks,” he said. I don’t think he understands much about the place where we’re going, but that’s cool. We’ll have time to figure it all out.

Not so long ago, Cambodia held the same place in the imagination that Iraq does today – a country where it is very easy to get yourself killed. During the horrific reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, educated Cambodians were systematically exterminated, forced to work in the fields until their bodies gave out or a Khmer Rouge soldier felt like killing them. Mass graves were dug, landmines were planted and skulls were stacked high. The heart of the country was gouged out, sliced up and buried, purposefully and systematically, a display of brutality matched only by horrors named Rwanda and Auschwitz.

There is an award-winning movie about those times called The Killing Fields, which I recommend highly.

When the barbarity abated and the Khmer Rouge was reduced to pockets of guerrillas terrorizing the countryside, a few intrepid foreigners began to trickle into the ancient kingdom from neighboring Thailand. The money they spent enriched the royalist government, and their presence alone infuriated Pol Pot, who set a $5000 bounty for the murder of “long-noses.”

$ 5000 is an astronomical amount of money in Cambodia. Some tourists were kidnapped and some were killed, but more kept coming.

Now, the Khmer Rouge is history, but the horror of their reign is still fresh. Cambodia is poor, anarchic and only beginning to regain a semblance of its soul. More and more tourists are arriving each year, Tyler and I about to join their ranks.

Tourism is a blessing and a curse in any land, but especially in Cambodia. Without the money that foreigners bring, the country could lapse into a more dangerous sort of anarchy. The government could not charge one of the highest departure taxes in the world, and might have to tax rice farmers instead, border officials could not overcharge for visas and might turn their guns on relatively wealthy Thais, the police could not extort bribes from tourists and might have to intimidate locals. Guesthouses and hotels would close. The majestic temples of Angkor Wat would become a slum. Tuk-tuks, taxis and motodops would stop running. Many Cambodians would starve.

Of course, some would say (arrogantly in my view) that it is better to starve than to be disgraced. Today, the way some Cambodians sell themselves is disgraceful. Any third-world country has its share of hustlers and whores, desperate people who ingratiate themselves to foreigners in hopes of snatching a dollar bill, a few crumbs from the first-world table. Cambodia has such people in legion, selling everything they can. The most popular night-club is called The Heart of Darkness. Phmon Penh is the sex tourism capital of the world and a center of the black-market trade in human organs, used in transplants. Recently, a scandal erupted over a website advertising Cambodia as the ideal destination for suicides, no prescription necessary.

So why am I going?

The shortest answer is that I’ve never been, but the longer one is more complicated. I want to go to Cambodia because it is as far away from the civility and order of Japan that I can get. Because it is warm while Hokkaido is cold. Because Tyler and I will spend less money in nearly a month of traveling than we could spend in a weekend out in Sapporo. Because restaurants cook two kinds of food, Regular and Happy, and Happy is laced with marijuana. Because there is the likelihood that the trip will change me and perhaps let me see things more clearly – pain and the absence of pain, poverty and wealth, good and evil – in the same way that climbing mountains reduces the world to cold and warm, hungry and fed, cloudy and clear. Because the first line of The Killing Fields goes, “Cambodia; A land I came to love, and pity.”

I hope to write a lot while I’m traveling, and update this blog from Internet cafes, but am unsure of their availability. Please stay tuned for more updates.

Although I haven’t booked any rooms or planned an itinerary, I have read up on Cambodia while surfing the Internet at school. The most informative site I found is called Tales of Asia, which focuses on Cambodia but also includes sections on several other Asian countries.

Rolf Potts has two stories about Cambodia on his website, one about a visit to a brothel in Phonm Penh and one about a week spent in a rural village without a phrasebook.

Finally, there is this article from Outside magazine about the kidnapping and murder of three young backpackers, which eloquently discusses the question of why people are drawn to places like Cambodia.


Blogger Katie said...

Hey Tim. Thanks for your comment on my blog. I'm sure I would have enjoyed the added punch of thinking I was getting deported within my first week. Too bad it was lost on me. (ya jerk)

Hey, I'll be in Krabi, Thailand, from 1st to the 9th. Let me know if you're going that way, and maybe we could go climbing or something. Well, safe travels. -katie

BTW- Really well-written blog... That's all I can say. It's good stuff.

7:30 AM  

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