Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful…
Lana Del Ray
I’m sitting on the chipped away curbside of street 126 at one of the Phnom Penh bus stations next to the Central Market. Like most bus stations in this corner of Southeast Asia, it’s swelter skelter, very hot and vibrant in the daytime and unlit and dangerous at night. I’m getting out of the capital city for the weekend to a chilled-out riverside town, Kampot. It’s about 80 miles away or 3 to 5 hours on the bus depending on the condition of the roads and National Road #3 in particular. The bus is without tourists and full but not uncomfortable and soon through the windows covered by vertical and horizontal reflection tape the view seems like giant columns of Asian high rises coming into focus. They are not. All around us is the drawn out countryside of Cambodia. A rolling carpet of rice paddies divided by swaths of high rising Palm trees and supported by Elephant-ear plants. It’s all very becalming so far and then the consistent pit-stops start. The bus takes what seems to be like random escape routes off paved National Road #3 and stops with the engine still running. Each time the bus driver joylessly lowers his window and medium sized taped up packages are shuffling between him and locals coming up to the open window. Random dogs from these outposts are coming to bark at the bus and flies are thickly buzzing and attacking them.
Inside the sort of air-con controlled environment, the buffalo strips and crab apples being passed around are chewy and tasty as the sweating bus driver is toweling his head then peels out banging through potholes to get back on somewhere near National Road #3. When his window goes down the heat blasts in and invites a day dream wonder. If the road was really a national one then why wasn’t it really paved? And more wonder if the bus route to Kampot was an official one? And if it’s not a problem for a three hour bus trip to really take six hours in support of the roadside economy, then what are these sharing Khmai fellow riders doing with their lives? What are they doing to survive? And what the hell is in those packages?
The week-long retreat out of town proved relaxing even though a few weeks after I found out and confirmed that the boutique guesthouse I stayed at in Kampot, Les Manguiers, was the last destination of, “A 25-year-old French holidaymaker who was brutally murdered on February 9, 2013 in Kampot, Cambodia. After turning up missing after leaving a party on her bicycle, Ms. Begni’s naked body was fished out of the estuarine Kampong Bay River brutally battered and very dead.”
None of this was part of the chitchat on the private bus back, it’s different foreigners squeezed tight and chatting with unbeatable avidity about the challenges of perfecting their efforts in this tropical world through projects like, inoculating against measles, starting a women’s rugby team and a scheme to get tourists to participate in a three day rice cutting “village plunge”. Yet, also the national election is just three weeks away and in Cambodia this common time election campaign starts 30 days before the election coming July 28. And just not yet on this private tourist bus election issues are in play. According to an editorial in the dependable Cambodia Daily opposition voters want, “A policy that includes the poor and does not favor the rich is hoped for. With Hun Sen many feel the past 20 years has been enough. But his dominance has also brought stability and growth. The economy grows at 7%.”
And venturing about emerging political interests among Khmai teenagers, one political observer opined: “They are the bamboo shoots of Cambodia. If they don’t think about their future and their role, how can they develop the country?”
The owner of the new and private Kampot bus company, 31-year-old Mr. Vuna, is sitting in the back with us wearing the Michael Jackson front visage Thriller t-shirt. And as the bus is returning to Phnom Penh a little static nervous energy is transferring, but contrary to what I’ve heard, the locals who speak English are interested in venting about politics. Mr. Vuna’s features are fearless and anticipatory so I ask him about current prime minister Hun Sen and he responds, “It’s been too long for his power. He just does what he wants. He never thinks about people.”
I point out an estimated 7% economy growth and plans for a new airport and he really loosens up: “OK, but that is for his friends. They just take everything they can from Cambodia no one else gets a chance.”
The other deodorized tourists, particularly the female rugby advocates, seem to get a little uptight and are adversely shaking their heads at the conversation or maybe at returning to the close smells of this charming city, but Mr. Vuna asks back, “Who do you want Number 4 or Number 7?”
I lower my look into the grin and eyes of Michael Jackson and sputter, “I just want you all to be happy.”
A lame new age answer for sure, yet Mr. Vuna further explained: Number 4 party was the old guard CPP party and the new challenging party was Number 7 party the CNRP. After the bus ride, I checked the Facebook CNRP profile: CNRP is a merger between two political parties, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP) on June 17, 2012, in Manila, Philippines. Its official symbol is the SUN with 24 ray sticks to represent each of the Cambodian 24 provinces.
JULY 11 —Thursday, 6 p.m.—
The corner of St. 282 and the north-south running, St. 51 (also known as Pasteur Street) is provocative and has much in common with many other corners and addresses in Phnom Penh’s cityscape. Particularly south of Sihanouk Boulevard, cafes and boutique hotels are being developed at a tizzying pace. You can see and smell the construction everywhere, especially when the warm tropical rain doubles down like today, once before noon and then around 3. For both Khmais and foreigners the drenching rain slows the discuter de accomplishment, what got done, what can be done, what’s to notice? When the rain showers are done, the sun usually breaks through; still, wide mouth puddles of varying depth can halt the day or at least keep it slowed down.
Some Khmai and expat regulars are coming in for a casual sundowner at the Blue Dog on St. 51. It’s a guest house across from Phnom Penh Art Institute and the ground floor holds the only dive/vibe bar in the trendy NGO area commonly called BKK I. It’s still not totally dark and the bats are still whipping around and bringing on the night. On the corner of the oblong bar, a young Khmai in an en vogue Chiloy-boy haircut is unsettled and playing at Asian power drinking. He is also mourning his dead sister who “Died in a motodop game,” he mumbled this in English and then quickly shook himself out of the bar. On my other side is Hunter an expat from the American suburbs into all kinds of narco-therapy he can easily get locally. He is taller and younger than everyone else and drumming hard on the dense Khmai timber bar. He’s elevated now and wants to talk, “I broke up with my girlfriend for three years. I put her on the back of my motorbike in Vietnam for three hours. I know she can take the pain.” He didn’t know the name of the local kid who just left nor did he dig election talk.
Straight in front is Blue Dog’s bar manager Sok Lee. “Lee” is in her automaton routine of counting the bar money and keeping in touch with her dreams via Facebook. Her mixed Khmer round and Korean fair features are of the type the ministry of tourism (if there was one in action) would set as a physical-typical brand. She just dipped out away from the popular Khmai girl red pixie dust hair back to her natural black. It seems obvious this makeover was prompted when her German boyfriend and everyone’s buddy at the long bar, ‘Sir-smoke-A Lot’ returned to Australia to pick fruit. She would like to follow Sir-Smoke to the migrant economy in Australia but she declares that as, “Sooo-difficult!” Hunter can’t help interrupting to ask so I tell him, “I’m a high school English teacher.” He starts banging on the bar so that the drinks are shimmering. Turning away seems the safe thing to do and I write Lee a practice question in English about the reigning King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni, being a sacred political whip here:
“Should the king pardon Sam Rainsy?”
“The king can not help him Because the King just live but he didn’t control all the citizen. So Hun Sen he is primaster that control everything in Cambodia…”
“So Sam Rainsy might die if he comes back?”
“Of course but if he can win the party He can stay in PP and everything is change. Maybe we become good but will see, on 28 and 29 of this month!”
Lee needed help in naming the country that Sam Rainsy was exiled in (France) and if there was any political idea that she wanted to address personally that wouldn’t matter as new realities being in play or not there was no sense talking much about government policy when the major opposition candidate is absentee, that plus the fact that we are in a bar in PP and the reggae music is looping.
Lee now has the bar’s metal ice scoop and is jabbing at unbroken ice. Suddenly all of the sound in the semi-noisy bar is trailing off. Something is happening outside. There are 13 motodops and a couple of tuk-tuks parking outside the Blue Dog but there is a roar rumbling from above. At first it sounds like large rain splashes on the roof but without that usual smell. Something else is coming one-way up the street. It’s dark now and hasn’t rained for several hours, yet just 10 feet into the night there is the roar of an approaching flood. It’s a phalanx of revving motodops and that smell of burning gas. Even the cheap-and-cheery pool sharks in soccer jerseys shooting pool in the back of the BD stop their bank shots to take a look out the front passageway proclaiming, “It is Cambodia. It’s a holiday tomorrow in’ it?” But it’s not; it is them riding erect on pink, blue and silver two-wheel titanium horses.
Up off the steamy blacktop strips of St. 51 rides a motodop collective of hip-bone skinny rebels with a cause and a challenge. The cause is coming into focus and it’s the opposition party Number 7: the Cambodia National Rescue Party. The challenge is for the general election. They are opposed to Hun Sen’s big bad wolf dominance and his Number 4 party—Cambodian People’s Party: the CPP. This is the first time they are up this close, but not really. For a story in a weekend magazine here I went spying on them unfurling their flag with a different kind of swirl in what is basically a teen-age disco. Clubbing with Khmai Teenagers in Phnom Penh. Here’s an excerpt, Asia’s new cherry bombs have arrived. First the girls in bouffant neo-Egyptian Cleopatra hair mostly colored in tinty light rust, tight designer t-shirts and mini-skirts or the very trendy Able Jeans, and of course high heels of some leopard skin variety. Then the boys with somewhat defiant razor-shag haircuts and motocross inspired Balmain skinny jeans and designer slip-on closed shoes. In about two minutes the noisy playground has been invaded by animated glamour puss statues come to party.
But tonight their carnival is outside and mobile. They are still vamping their candy crushes on each other and snapping selfies is mandatory behavior. Yet tonight they revel and metastasize in some kind of new dirty Indie style. The roar is noisier than the teen dance club or Phnom Penh bus stop, but not loud or dangerous. There are a thousand riders maybe more. It’s the Khmai youth brigade sharing the potholed street and rolling thru the nocturne towards Cambodia’s Independence Monument. They are all helmetless and as such breaking a city law, but keeping the teenage law of looking fresh and casual.
Back inside the BD, Lee is snapping her phone camera at the fanfare while some of us with dry throats are lighting and holding up plastic lighters. The astral body thunders past for about three minutes. It stops and then whiplash. The protest kids, including the ones driving, point seven fingers up into the night and then go snatching air-kisses. They’re coming together and it’s meta-teenage. Maybe theirs is a special octane message to this world-weary planet: See you when you See Me: We’ll be back tomorrow!
JULY 14 –Sunday, 3:30 p.m.–
It’s Sunday two weeks before the election and CNRP opposition leader Sam Rainsy has announced he will return from exile in France in the 11th hour before the election. Cambodian political interest is swelling up the hearts of all in the Penh, and my regular moto-driver the sun cooked Mr. Vuth shows up in front of my guest house in the flip flops I was going to toss out but he saved. Vuth presents me a white house painter’s cap with the CNRP number 7 logo on the cover with the 24 sun rays extending to the brim. He is a slight man with black shoe polish in his hair and bright gray strands highlighting a semi-regal chieftain face. There’s nothing swoosh about Vuth, he has very cut fingernails yet sometimes his toes are painted white as they act as dragging reflectors for other moto drivers to avoid. He must have an empty schedule tomorrow and could use to pick up a few dollars. He suggests we meet at 4pm and ride in the general demonstration.
We start in front of the four star Cambodiana Hotel on Sotherous Blvd. and so far it’s a low traffic Sunday ride downtown the bourgeoning riverside. It’s a jamming tourist strip of guesthouses, westerly eateries, XXL drawstring kiosks, bootleg shops, corporate money changers, Crystal Meth fiends, monkeys in the power lines, and all available conveniences. The girly bars, the grim reaper pubs and traveler flophouses are set in the side streets. I reckon the total of it to the bumping days of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore and for what it’s worth it swings a lot more quivering with salty intent than recent pictures from the streets of build me up, buttercup, Brooklyn. We were River Side and now turn left for a costume change. Up street 106 past the far corner bus stop at the PP night market and on to the Westside. We won’t be stopping at Jana restaurant for today’s special, $15 pan fried beef tenderloin. The Buntham Express Tour and Service is open but empty and next to that there is even an ex-night club for rent. We are getting closer to the action across Preah Ang Eng street where the Cambodia Daily earlier in February reported that The French Agency of Economic Development proudly agreed to grant Cambodia a total of $47.7 million for irrigation infrastructure. Past that behind a 12 foot colonial protectorate era hard cast wall overrun with circles of barbed wire new facelifts to mansions are on the go.
About 3000 mostly under 35’s are gathering in what was in the past called Wat Phnom Penh Park, and now named Freedom Park. So many full faces on top of semi-fast motos, it’s just not easy to tell with adult Khmais in Phnom Penh if they are a rich clan selling land and have somewhere to go, or perhaps own a massage shop for tourists, or maybe they are all day in the sunners selling factory reject Ralph Lauren at an outdoor kiosk in the shine of the pothole market place? And during my six months of sleeping on the floor in a windowless room behind the bar of the Same Same backpacker guest house on St. 258, I have gotten into many extended chitchats with locals where it’s hard to discern who is whose brother or cousin, from what village is their home and how long they are staying in Phnom Penh. It is just the way Khmais orient everyone, (themselves and foreigners alike) to the difficult history and family patterns of this kingdom– any hint of incest or inbreeding is not part of it for sure. Who is whose son, daughter or even a cousin is always the in-time Cambodian joke that forces eruptions of laughter belying the anxiousness. And that is one of the attractions of the CNRP rides, everyday, people converging then fastening themselves to each other’s rumble of thousands of 125 cc engines. The smell, the smoke and poof: no one is an orphan.
Everyone is looking at the foreigner and waiting for the parade to start; so this is my expat chance not to scowl then turn away. I am happily the grinning Yankee offering relief to a wondrous scene. Of course the regular impoverished families living rough on the edges of Freedom Park have gotten used to anything. Sometimes three generations of a pleading family are garbled together hemmed into this sub world. The ones who most pop-up in my nonsense dream channels are the should-be elementary schoolers romping on and off both sideways of the park. They are stark naked begging and mostly crowd-sourcing to collect aluminum cans worth 1.25 cents apiece. Right now making history is oblivious to them. These election demo rides offer a larger school of riders to feed on so they don’t waste time to take the white flowers being given away. It costs 1000 riel (25 cents) to get a number 7 sticker to everyone else and this transaction nimbly happens while we ride. And it’s not hot today, the smell of gas isn’t omni and really things are just ginning up. I have Vuth stop at the slap dashed together CNRP podium at the center of Freedom Park so I can talk to someone.
Saritha Von is a seasonal factory worker gluing together shoes and making, “Not enough money.” He wears an “Organizer” badge on a faded powder blue golf shirt with a disheveled collar and tells in high pitch stressed syllables, “All young people are leaders. Young people join today. No leaders. All the people are leaders.” There’s nothing ironic about him.
And it is organized. All of the fronts of the motos are aligned in the same direction. “Vote Number 7,” many people are imploring in English and smiling. The sound of engines strike up en masse and in a moment the gas bouquet is fuming in everyone’s nose. Our number 7 cavalcade is rallying as smiles and shrieks are let loose and the tropical world intends on winning. Wild and unfettered the cavalcade travels around to the perimeter of Central Market and up-ticking rolls back through the busy-as-a-one-legged- man-in-an-ass-kicking-contest Norodom Boulevard. The sky is rolling out orangey and it’s like being in some hive and claustrophobic but in a life affirming way. It’s not like moto-ing to the newish suburbs of Toul Kork last October in the days and nights right after King Norodom Sinahouk died. Then everything was loosened and pointing sideways, some sort of public code was broken and motos kept bumping into each other as the larger thoroughfares sounded like overcrowded pit-bull kennels.
Yet, don’t issue me brave for getting around in a capital city with a dearth of traffic lights and even less partly sane walking routes. In fact in many ways it’s easy to expat in Phnom Penh. A local phone and personal number costs $20 and rebooting an in-country “business” visa every three months costs $74. If you can live without pampering or a security guard, comfortable and private accommodation can be sorted for around $300 a month. Finding it involves getting into the local pusher man’s tuk-tuk and go hooting around interesting neighborhoods while looking for rent signs which always include a contact number. Look up to see sun cracked and neglected French Colonial villas made of sandstone, and three generations of bright clothing drying on homemade tenterhooks or, for less organized families, running along and covering the balustrades. A $5 search fee for two or three hours is about right. Some expats/travelers budget robbery into their monthly budgets, yet, I’ve walked the loose and broken St. 19 many times either going for a roast beef sandwich, a visa renewal or searching for a basic French book and so far no troubles, just casual urban atrophy, C’est la vie.
And THEY are back… The teen phalanx preparing to ride under a kind of tangerine dream color sky obliging them! Hundreds of high school age students noisily cranking out a movable alter of teenage pleading libidos. The first line includes two chopper-bikes and has assembled like a casting call for the S.E. Asia production of a leather and bobby-sox free Grease. The much larger group I am in is surrounding Freedom Park while facing their line up across St 19. We are close enough to each other, their eyebrows full and arching in the sundown. Both sides are raising their hands and fingers into victory gestures and I am not sure who is going to turn first, our rank and file group, or the royals who shine like they are breathing pure nitrogen, and sky gaze upwards, their affluence framed by the twilight ceiling.
Back in the same stuff different day Khmai TV life, there are 5 main-vein public channels which constantly show local pop-star videos, acrobatic martial arts ballet, competitive Sovanna Phum, also called Muay Thai boxing, and by the dozens Korean love-me dramas which are completely dubbed into Khmer. Of course it’s all available mobile and constantly accessed on the iPhone dream matrix. But most riders are in the present, paying attention to each other in the flesh and tuned into the engine roar. A few bike rows ahead it looks like one of my high school students, but the sun is putting the wince on recognizing anyone. One thing we all know at some level? These rides are different business then the happenings in the common Khmai high school classroom. No one who’s been sexually touched before they want is now a static target. There’s no ugly dark girl sitting in the middle of a shabby classroom squirming in her ill-fit sidewalk pickings from the selling booth where her parents and older siblings work. Everyone in this ride is in fact highborn/supreme. Or even something better than that: sweet sixteens riding around without permits questioning authority and going for something new; something both awesome and awful—Hope.
Scott Liam Soper Part 1 of 4