Fire in Phnom Penh
[ places - may 05 ]
A Thai woman abroad
"Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon."
29 January 2003. I am sitting in a street-side restaurant in Saigon watching the news on a silent TV screen. Scenes of rioting and buildings on fire. A Vietnamese at the next table tells me the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh has been attacked.
I run into an Internet shop and browse a Thai newspaper's website: 'Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh burnt down'.
What am I to do now, with a Cambodian visa already in my hand? My budget is going down the toilet. Thais are chased down the street in the Cambodian capital. It's chaos. I cannot go to Cambodia. Here, in Saigon, I can't even get on a flight to Bangkok - it's the Tet festival, the Vietnamese New Year holiday and flights are heavily booked. By the time I manage to buy a one-way ticket to Bangkok, I am broke. So much for Cambodia.
A year and eight months later, I finally made it to Phnom Penh. I had just read an article which claimed the previous year's riots might well recur in the near future. I remembered that in the early 1960s the Cambodians put Thai diplomats in jail for two years; what safety guarantees could there be for an ordinary female Thai tourist? But I flew in anyway on 7 October - the day King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated.
Before I even glimpsed Cambodia, the immigration official who stamped my passport asked me: "Nung Roy Baht, Nung Roy Baht". He spoke the language I'm most familiar with.
I leaned on the counter and asked "What for?" There was no answer but a grim smile and another request for "Nung Roy Baht." I ask the question again. The officer's expression changed into discomfort and hesitation. Finally he gave my passport back to me.
A tuk tuk took me from the airport, 40 minutes' drive to my apartment on Monivong Boulevard. The temperature was cooler than in Bangkok.
There was no traffic congestion. Everybody could - and did - go everywhere. In Phnom Penh, I had to concentrate on every move on the road from all directions - it was chaotic. If you were not a professional driver, you had no hope of survival.
Phnom Penh is still a people-friendly place. There are no skyscrapers, the city plan is more or less functioning and, most importantly, you can breathe the air.
In the evening people sit along the bank of the Tonle Sap River and picnic on the lawn in front of the Royal Palace. There are many parks and some host nightly live shows of Khmer music. One of these events, a singing contest, reminded me of my childhood. A song by the late Thai Luk Tung star Pumpuang Duangchan, sung by a contestant, with words I couldn't understand, took me right back to the 80s.
The people were generally friendly, but misery was never far. The smile always came with a kind of killing field flashback.
In my country, smile and kill also seem to be general practices: last year 2,500, government deaths on the streets; in April this year, 107 people died in one night in the South, and while I am staying in unsafe Phnom Penh, 85 lives are again lost in Southern Thailand at a demonstration.
We don't have fields for killing because we kill each other everywhere. We don't have to prove who gets killed - it's the same as doing business without receipts. There are innumerable dead people if I go back to '92, '76, '73 and so on... We are going back to where we started with a leader who claims to be part of the digital generation but solves his problems with backward solutions. He is very generous; the hole he is digging is so big that Thai people can go down with him.
So, compared with recent events in Thailand, Cambodia - unusually - had good news. They got a new King. The coronation of King Norodom Sihamoni took place on 29th October last year. Long live the King. I was unfortunately within sight of the King's North Korean bodyguards during the ceremony. Be friendly, don't be grumpy. No fear! If you're looking at me, I take your picture. One grabbed my lens and threatened to break it if I didn't stop shooting. I assume they install North Korean president protection software into these people's heads. These men are brutal.
But I hope there will be more good news from Cambodia. No more burnings of the Thai Embassy. The building is easy to restore but the attitude and the resentment can last for a lifetime.