Trouble in paradise (or vice versa)
[ places - april 02 ]
It is becoming harder to avoid transglobal tourism. One solution is to head for trouble spots. Sudan, Colombia, Kashmir or East Timor strike terror into the hearts of Japanese honeymooners and the armies of Americans, for whom the list of pariah states has expanded now that an arch xenophobe has take up abode in the White House. Even such serenely peaceful places as Laos and Lombok are happily out of bounds.
I first discovered the joys of danger zones in Cambodia in 1997. Flying into Phnom Penh in a clapped out Antonov manned by three inebriated Russians, everything about this seedy capital thrilled me, from the vast bat-infested French terracotta-coloured roofs to the rambunctious markets, the hard edges of patrician colonialism softened by decades of decay and anarchy. With barely a handful of working traffic lights, getting round Pnom Penh was a delirious process of avoiding collisions. On every street corner, squatting families lunched al fresco over coal-fired cookers, the spicy smells of their smoking dishes competing with the stench of sewage, a parting gift from Khmer Rouge, who destroyed the city's plumbing, together with much of its infrastructure.
While I'm always partial to a bit of political brouhaha, I hadn't quite bargained on privilege of witnessing a military coup. Four years earlier - don't ask me why - Cambodians had taken the wholly eccentric step of electing two prime ministers: wily Machiavellian strongman Hun Sen and King Sihanouk's whinging son Prince Rannariddh. They were chalk and cheese: one a former Communist and Khmer Rouge guerrilla; the other a dim Riviera playboy considerably to the right of Jemima Khan. It couldn't last, and it didn't.
The trouble started on Sunday morning, when I was sipping gin at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a French colonial refuge straight out of a Marguerite Duras novel. The first crack of gunfire was almost drowned out by the barking geckos and the tinny sounds of The Eagles' "Such a lovely place, such a lovely place" crackling through the tannoy. A second, louder, bang produced the desired effect: absolute silence, followed by a basso profondo order from behind the bar for everyone to "fuck off immediately!" Several reporters grabbed their mobiles and sped off in the direction of the firing. One or two were noticeably unruffled: "I 'aven't 'ad my sole yet", declared the reporter from Le Monde, staring at his white plate.
Ten days later, when full scale-hostilities broke out in the city, the club closed, leaving the foreigners, or 'barangs', to take up positions around coffee tables at Birt's Books, a rat-infested guest house a few hundred yards down the road on the Tonle River. From Birt's, the bravehearts would make regular sorties to assess the situation. Scores of Cambodians on motos had gathered a few belongings and a bag of rice, and were heading out of the city towards the Japanese bridge. Five minutes later, they were back: all exits out of the city had been closed.
This was infinitely better than sipping some silly cocktail in an overpriced Amman resort, but there were a few close calls. From the fifth-storey apartment overlooking the Mekong where I had been holed up for three days, I could hear reassuringly distant rumbles from Ponchentong Airport three miles away. Out of the blue, a stray missile scorched over my balcony and disappeared into the river, sending me in a mad dash for the bedroom wardrobe.
Occasionally I'd break curfew and run the 200-yard gauntlet to the Cathay Hotel to mingle with other jumpy foreigners. When an illusory calm finally descended on the city, I ventured out from my claustrophobic quarters for a swim at the local Youth Centre. Mid-length, the afternoon quiet was interrupted by the rat-a-tat of gunshots. Peering nervously over the pool wall, I was confronted by 10 trigger-happy and apparently victorious CPP soldiers, who were hunting the enemy, intent on reprisals.
The odd moment of genuine fear came not so much from being at the wrong end of a AK47 as from the dawning realisation that my sources of news were fatally flawed. Surrounded, on the one hand, by jumpy Cambodians and, on the other, by gleefully alarmist Westerners with scant knowledge of the political terrain, it was easy to get lost in a labyrinth of misinformation. The American ambassador had taken flight and was heading for Vietnam, came one scurrilous story. Another warned of a spate of reprisals against journalists. The climax was the news that 500 Khmer Rouge would soon be emerging - as if from a Trojan horse - only yards from my apartment.
It was, of course, the imminent arrest of the Khmer Rouge's notorious dictator, Pol Pot, that provided the background for this latest round of Cambodian bloodletting. Back at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, a posse of our best war correspondents had dug themselves in, eagerly anticipating a promised helicopter ride to the Party's stronghold of Anlong Venh. Their phallic zoom lenses, the tripods tied to their backs and their hot-blooded competitiveness only contributed to the surreal tension. One Home Counties cameraman even turned up sporting his old CCF public school khaki fatigues and a shaven head.
This highly unlikely tour of previously forbidden territory had been orchestrated by the aforementioned Rannariddh, apparently determined to bask in his 15 minutes of world fame. The prince is famous for idiotic stunts; only a few months before he had inflamed the world's media with reports of Pol Pot's demise. One could only be sceptical about this helicopter ride to hell, with no guarantee of safety nor a scrap of hard evidence to back up the prince's utterings.
Meanwhile, up in KR territory to the North, matters were far from simple. Reports of KR commanders Nuon Chea and Ta Mok vying for supremacy in the hostage-taking hullabaloo sounded ominous; added to that was the danger of the KR donning the green uniforms of government soldiers and sabotaging proceedings in almost camp disguise. As one Pnom Penh wag put it: "These guys aren't just jungle guerrillas, they're a bunch of transvestites".
The Pol Pot stories grew ever more farcical. One Swiss journalist claimed their favourite dictator had been spotted being rushed through the jungle towards Thailand on a stretcher, an intravenous drip swinging from his arm. Another insisted that he had been airlifted to safety in China, safely out of reach of the international tribunal, and was living in an apartment in Tiananmen Square not far from Ben and Jerry's. More absurd still was the prospect - taken seriously by paranoiacs and doom merchants alike - that the elusive dictator had come to Pnom Penh for a formal reconciliation with the government. A scenario straight out of Black Mischief loomed: while reporters thrashed about in the snake-infested jungle for the malarial Maoist, a repentant Pol Pot was propping up the bar at the FCC, just in time for his Happy Hour, two-for-the-price-of-one Margaritas.
I declined to join a planned exodus to Vietnam. Even armed with huge wads of dollars for each checkpoint, I reasoned, my chances were better if I followed Embassy guidelines: grab as much food as possible from a local market and head home for what looked like a deliciously long siege. The dignified tones of the World Service were as reassuring as 'Greensleeves'; not so the 'Star Wars' reporter on CNN, for whom a crazed FUNCIPEC soldier happily sprayed several rounds of bullets indiscriminately for the camera. Cut to screaming citizens with open wounds. "Foreigners" were "trapped in a war-torn city". Small wonder that three days later, the report of 13 deaths came as a bit of an anticlimax.
Once the violence had subsided, the news of looting triggered a fresh round of panic. Airline offices refused to open, provoking angry scenes, and one bank opened to a virtual riot as all and sundry fought to close their accounts. All anyone could talk about was evacuation. When, finally, a Thai Orient charter began a lucrative trade to Bangkok, there was a stampede for tickets. It was like a scene from a Hollywood action movie, with a smirking Bruce Willis in a Tornado Jet representing the cavalry. Thousands poured into the Cambodiana Hotel to await their turn to be shuttled to the airport.
I wasn't going anywhere; however, I did agree to take a friend to the airport. Ponchentong Boulevard was heavily patrolled by CPP tanks. One wall of the monstrously ugly Ambassador's Hotel had been burnt to a cinder, and the Toyota and Isuzu warehouses were ruined and empty. The airport building was a sorrier sight, several mortars having torn off part of the roof and ripped a large hole in the control tower.
I briefly joined 300 cheerful "evacuees" on the tarmac. Nothing - not the afternoon downpour, the total lack of toilets or refreshments, nor even the ludicrous $15 airport tax - could spoil the mood among the foreigners. When the plane finally arrived, jaws dropped: people were arriving to visit rather than evacuate the country. I found this sight strangely moving: not everyone, apparently, was ready to ready to abandon Cambodia, even if the newcomers were probably all vulture-journalists. The next day I took the boat to Angkor Wat for a sublime and completely solitary experience.
I stayed another month in Cambodia. When I finally arrived back in London, I was greeted by a touching outpouring of concern and amazement from friends, family and even the Turkish dry-cleaner at the top of the street. It was as if I had returned from the dead, or at least from a harrowing ordeal. I wanted to explain that I'd had the best time of my life, but all I could see was the narrowing of eyes and looks of terrible pity passing. My 74-year old mother had taken to her bed weeks earlier with several bottles of Jack Daniels and a hot-water bottle.
I kept in touch with my new friends in Cambodia. It has changed in the last year or two. No longer can you buy opium at Russian market or reach for the bowl of hash at the Heart of Darkness. The place is still free of Macdonalds and the detritus of corporate America, but the clean-up of humanity sounded ominous. The paedophiles cruising the riverfront are gone, replaced by Mormons on bicycles. Phnom Penh may, sadly, have lost its uniquely seedy vitality. Fountains have been turned back on, roads repaved and every building in the city has been painted yellow on the orders of the mayor, determined to present a pleasing image to - the horror! - fucking tourists.